Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Homemade Costume

My sister and I were at a thrift store in February when I saw a blue and yellow gumball machine and inspiration struck. “That looks just like Tom Servo’s head,” I said, and from that, a costume idea was born. 

My friend Lindsay and I used to watch Mystery Science Theater: 3000 when we were younger, and although we didn’t watch the show regularly, whenever we caught it, we thought it was hilarious. I own the movie version (MST3K: The Movie), and I enjoy watching it on lazy Saturdays or rainy evenings when the mood strikes.

I love the way the robots— Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, especially— have personalities and became real characters, and their jokes had me laughing every time. I’ve even mimicked the premise, making color commentary during cheesy movies, interjecting when there are obvious plot holes. 

MST3K: The Costume
MST3K: The Costume

MST3K: The Costume – Procuring the Parts

After placing the gumball machine on my bookshelf, I let the idea percolate a bit. Actually, I kind of forgot about it. It was February after all, and the coldest winter we’ve had in Minnesota in a long time. But with spring came a renewed energy, so, after researching what the robots were made of, in April I put out a call on Facebook for the following items: 

  • a bowling pin from a child’s set (~8″ tall)
  • a pair of ventriloquist dummy hands
  • two small ping pong balls
  • a junior hockey goalie face guard (the kind with the wire bars, not the Jason/Friday the 13th kind)
  • red spray paint
  • a large Barrel of Monkeys
  • gold spray paint
  • plastic platters with high sides

I wrote on the posting: I can’t tell you what they’re for and you won’t get them back…I also can’t pay much but would negotiate some type of baked good exchange. I was kind of hoping to keep it hush-hush, but I have some clever, equally geeky friends who knew immediately my plans. After the initial flurry, though, I had a busy summer, and the gumball machine was still the only piece I had until early September.

I reconnected with the people and gathered what I needed. I had to make adjustments, since a lot of the stuff wasn’t quite the same and it needed to be miniature and not very heavy, since I knew I’d be walking around with the robots on a box that was hanging from my shoulders.

MST3K: The Costume Parts
MST3K: The Costume Parts

MST3K: The Costume – The Process

I made lots of sketches and did a lot of ruminating about how to make this, but it really came down to trial and error. Tom Servo is made from that gumball machine (head), a Barrel of Monkeys (body) and a Ziploc Tupperware container covered in pipe wrap foam (skirt). His arms are made out of plastic pipe joints, the springs of a bracelet cut in half, and moldable hands that were key-chains.

Crow presented more problems because he’s kind of top-heavy. His head is made of a foam bowling pin, the cage of a hockey mask, a soap dish (eye socket), some small balls that I colored with a highlighter and drew diamonds on with a Sharpie, and the inner cardboard tube from the bowling pin. His body is made of two platters, several ice cream pint lids, and a small lampshade I got at Goodwill. His arms are made from an angle divider covered in pipe wrap and attached to two halves of an eyeglasses box. I folded cardboard to make his “claws.”

After a lot of trial and error (and some gold duct tape), I enlisted my brother-in-law to help reinforce him. He drilled a hole all the way through and reinforced the cardboard tubing. He also provided the box for Crow’s shoulders and a lot of help with the rest of it. And the best part was, we didn’t have to leave his apartment because he and my sister had everything we needed to make it work.

Unarmed Tom Servo
Unarmed Tom Servo

Tom Servo in Progress
Tom Servo in Progress

MST3K: The Costume – Trials and Tribulations

The plan was to wear the costume to work, then head to a costume contest at a local venue. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan.

I burned two of my fingers pretty badly on the hot glue gun and spray-painted my hands (and my parents’ driveway) a couple of times. Crow’s head fell off. Tom Servo’s arm fell off, and his skirt fell off, and then his head fell off. The paint on his hands peeled, which I patched with white electrician’s tape and some WiteOut.

The hot glue burned through the foam and peeled off the paint in a few places. I inhaled so many different fumes (burning foam, spray paint, hot glue, WiteOut, marker, etc.) that I started seeing things. I spent way more money than I intended, and I wasn’t finished in time to wear it to work. I didn’t even make it to the costume party I planned to attend with my friends on Friday (one cancelled, the other came over to help me finish the box). 

Crow T. Robot's Head
Crow T. Robot’s Head

MST3K: The Selfie
MST3K: The Selfie

The Moment Crow's Head Fell Off. I think my face says it all.
The Moment Crow’s Head Fell Off. I think my face says it all.

MST3K: The Result

Things didn’t go according to plan. But it ended up being better than I imagined. 

I met my neighbor, who told me “Whoa, that’s a nice Tom Servo,” as I was walking out the door to take Tom to work with me. I introduced my friend Julie to the show, and instead of going to a crowded party (possibly ruining the costume) we ordered pizza, cut cardboard, and watched an episode. “I may have to come after my Friday night class again sometime,” she told me as she was leaving. “This was way better than me going home to unwind by myself.”

I got to spend time with my sister and brother-in-law, who played a large part in getting the costume finished (and it only took a few hours on a Saturday and some tools). I hadn’t seen them in a while because we’ve all been so busy. As we were carrying the pieces out to my car afterward, one of their neighbors called out, “Nice Crow!” as she was walking by. She slowed down to see the full costume. 

I made friends at the party I went to (where I only knew a few people, and then only casually before). I had to ask people to get me stuff from the kitchen, which provided an opportunity to meet people, including a guy named James Moore, who told me about how he did voice-over work for the (short-lived) animated series for the show. He voiced Tom Servo.

This costume was a talking point, an entry, a conversation starter. And, it provided me not only a place to set my beer and phone, but a personal bubble in case I needed it. I also got to wear comfortable clothes (which is essential for me on Halloween). I have Raynaud’s disease, so I have to keep my extremities warm, which really means keeping my core warm. So, no flimsy clothes or thin-socked feet. This costume, while a little cumbersome, was actually fairly comfortable (not super heavy, not outrageously wide). 

In addition to being a hit at the party I went to, I got a great response to the photos I posted on Facebook. “This is SO clever, and so detail-oriented. I love it!!” my childhood friend Wendy posted in the comments section. Even though I haven’t seen her in years, we reconnected over this costume.

But beyond all that: I made something. I came up with an original idea for a costume (not one I’d seen before) and I made it with my own two hands. Yes, it took time. Yes, it was frustrating. Yes, I considered going out and buying something to wear instead. But in a world where almost everything can be bought or found on the internet, I used my imagination and some elbow grease to make my idea work, and there’s something to be said for that. I’m really proud of the result.

It wasn’t just a costume, it was an experience. 

MST3K The Finished Robots
MST3K The Finished Robots

MST3K The Finished Box
MST3K The Finished Box

MST3K The Costume/The Experience
MST3K The Costume/The Experience

Coolest Homemade Costume Contest 2023

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